Recently it was reported in the Roanoke Times that a Montanna Department of  Transportation video shows a horse picking up a rider at a bar.  The message was supposed to be that if you have been drinking you should get a ride.  Apparently the Chief of Police in Helena received calls asking if it was legal to ride a horse while under the influence.  Although it may be legal to do so it is of course unwise.

In Virginia it is illegal to drive or operate any motor vehicle while under the influence.  (Virginia Code Section 18.2-266)  This may not include a horse but does include cars, trucks and even mopeds.  But what does it mean to operate a motor vehicle?  Must the vehicle be placed in motion?

A person can operate a vehicle without setting it in motion.  Cranking the engine is certainly enough to operate a motor vehicle but apparently the engine of the vehicle does not have to be running to support a DUI conviction.  Just recently the Supreme Court of Virginia decided the case of Nelson v. Commonwealth.  In that case, Nelson had apparently been “sleeping or possibly passed out” in a vehicle for several hours.  A law enforcement officer found Nelson “hunched over” the driver’s seat of his Grand Cherokee parked in a residential neighborhood.  The officer saw lights from the radio and heard music.  He also saw that the gearshift was in the “park” position.  The key was in the ignition and turned to the “on or accessory position.”  The car engine was not actually running however.  The officer testified that it appeared that  Nelson had urinated on himself and had dried feces on his legs.  Due to this and the disheveled appearance of his clothing, the officer surmised that Nelson had been there for a while.  Nelson told the officer that he had gone to his car to have a cigarette as he could not smoke in the room he had rented nearby.  The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the decision ruling that the Court of Appeals and the trial court had correctly found that Nelson was operating a motor vehicle.  The evidence that Nelson was under the influence was strong including a blood alcohol level five times the limit.

Anyone who thinks they cannot get a DUI by sitting in a car with the radio on and without the engine runing needs to think again.  Just engaging the electrical system of a car to turn the radio on is “operating” a car in Virginia.